Producer/writer/activist Rick Congress (of Random Chance Records) talks about the mission of Jazz & Blues

"I can’t imagine living without blues (and Jazz…real jazz is blues based too) in my head, and listening to recorded or live music. And for me it was a soundtrack to my political activities."

Rick Congress: Give Blues & Jazz A Chance

Rick Congress is owner of Random Chance Records. The label have released albums of: AFROdysia, Angela Ortiz, Bill O'Connel, Bill Ware and Vibes, Charles Fambrough, Chet Baker, Chief Schabutte Gilliame, Eric Dolphy, Emanuel Young, Global Village Orchestra, Harmonica Blues Orgy, Howard Glazer, Impeach Bush/Cheney, Jerry Gonzalez, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Khan Jamal, Little Arthur Duncan, Lotz of Music, Mark Lotz & Shango's Dance, Michael Packer, Pyeng Threadgill, Randy Weston, Robert Jospé, Sam Lay, Scott Brown, Snehasish Mozumder, Steve Hobbs, The Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues.

Rick says about the label: Randomness may or may not be involved. I was working on a book about the life of blues mandolinist James "Yank" Rachell ("Blues Mandolin Man" University Press of Mississippi, 2001) and began thinking about some of his old LPs that were out of print. It was a shame they weren't available. So I got the idea of finding out who owned the rights and putting them out myself. In the process of doing this I inadvertently created a record label...after all I needed a bar code, web site, advertising in blues magazines, etc. Then I started getting sent demos from artists. I just kept taking the next step. Unfortunately, the licenses I bought for two Yank Rachell albums have long expired, but his work is still available on Bob Koester's great Delmark label. Fortunately, I've kept the label going and have released some really good blues, jazz, latin, world and whatever CDs. The music business environment is nearly impossible, but the hardy indy labels that live more for love than money are still hanging on.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in music industry? How important is music in your life?

Music was always important in my life. Like a lot of teenagers who grew up in the USA in the 1950 & 60s I was enthusiastic about early rock and roll. To me it was Bill Hailey and the Comets (rock around the clock the song and the movie), Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Platters early on. These performers were a bridge from blues, boogie, rhythm & blues into the more commercial rock music that got very popular. Even Elvis’s first songs, like That’s all right Mama and Hound Dog were actually cover songs done first by blues musicians (Big Mama Thorton…I forget the one who wrote That’s all right mama...but he later got some royalty money from it.)

After the early blues influenced musicians opened the door, then more white, commercial, boring music started to dominate rock and roll. I like the early stuff.

But at the age of 13 my best friend and I both got drum sets and started learning about jazz. I grew up in Indianapolis and we found a 28 year old working jazz drummer to give us lessons. His name was Sonny Johnson and he was playing club dates with guitarist Wes Montgomery and organist Mel Rhyne. We would go to Sonny’s house and take our lessons and then hang around to listen to them practice. We were two white kids going into a black neighborhood to see these great jazz musicians…we sort of became mascots.

Wes Montgomery, of course, became famous and was a great jazz guitar innovator; but there were other musicians around at the time we hung out with. Slide Hampton, Monk Montgomery, Wes’s brother was one of the first bassists to use an electric bass. Another brother Buddy played vibes and piano. Donald Byrd, the trumpet player was also around at this time but I don’t remember meeting him.

At the same time as I was learning about jazz (strictly modern—Modern Jazz Quartet, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Bird & Diz and drummers Max Roach, Art Blakey were my heroes) and practicing my drumming I was getting aware of race and the early civil rights movement. So the music and the protest politics were a seamless whole to me. I joined the NAACP when I was about 16 and followed the news avidly about the actions in the late 1950s of SNCC doing the sit ins to desegregate lunch counters, and Martin Luther King organizing the Montgomery Bus boycotts  in1957, in Montgomery Alabama. This boycott made him a national figure. 

Photo: Richard & Percy Heath of Mdern Jazz Quartet

I also heard King speak at a black church in Indianapolis at this time. For me to do this kind of thing was very radical in Indianapolis in the 1950s. It was  a very conservative, racist town (it still is) the KKK was a big presence in Indiana and even controlled the state government in the 1920s. My fellow high school students thought I some kind of traitor commie for being for equal rights for blacks (I had a few like minded friends, but we were isolated).

I really learned about the blues when I went off to college in 1961, to Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. there was a big folk music crowd and a lot of blues fans too. I learned about Leadbelly and his political songs (If you’re white/ you’re all right/if you’re brown, stick around/but if you’re black, get back, get back.

So for me the music and politics were all tied together. I put sold my drum set and dove into radical politics in the 60s and never looked back. I worked full-time as an anti-Vietnam war protest organizer. I participated in starting a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Indianapolis in 1964. It was a very integrated, dynamic organization and we led some successful campaigns to force businesses to stop discriminating racially.

So I spent the 1960s and the 70s and even into the 80s (I worked in support of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and spent a lot of time in Managua working as a leftwing journalist and then organizing speaking tours of FSLN representatives in the US). I was a full immersion radical. I also belonged to a Trotskyist group  (the Socialist Workers Party) for several years. I also worked closely with African National Congress members when I lived in Atlanta, GA in the early 1980s.

I finally burnt out and stopped doing full time political activism by 1990. But I  had kept up with blues and jazz as a fan during my activist years.

How started the thought of Random Chance and Yank Rachell's biography? How do you describe and what characterize label’s philosophy?

I got the idea of writing a biography of Yank Rachell in 1996 when I heard from a friend in Indianapolis (I’ve lived in many cities over the years, but have been in New York City since 1985) that Yank was still alive and my friend , a lawyer, was helping him recover some royalties owed to him (one of Yank’s song, “She Caught the Katy” was used in the first Blues Brothers movies…sung by Taj Mahal. Fortunately, Yank got some decent money from that.)

I had heard Yank play blues mandolin in Indianapolis in 1966 at a coffee house that was also a music venue. It blew me away. I had never heard anything like it before. So 20 years later, talking on the phone to my friend who still lived there, I got the idea to look Yank up and see if he would talk to me.

I started visiting Yank in 1996 and taped conversations with him and also contacted people who he had worked with or influenced. Yank died about a year and a half after I began interviewing him, but I was able to complete the book by using material I got from artists like Ry Cooder, Honeyboy Edwards, Howard Armstrong, Henry Townsend and Charlie Musslewhite.

The book was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2001. After I had finished the manuscript I started thinking about some of Yank’s old LPs that were long out of print. And, looking for a project, started to see who owned the rights to these albums and what it would take to release them as CDs. So, step by step, I sort of backed into starting a record label. If I wanted to license the albums and press CDs and somehow get them distributed I’d need to set up a business and get incorporated and then advertise, etc. So in 1999 I released my first two CDS, one was “Blues Mandolin Man” that was originally recorded by Blind Pig Records and the other was known as the “Blue Goose Album” recorded by a defunct label called Blue Goose and owned by Schanachie Entertainment Corp. sort of an “Americana” music label that specialized in folk music and similar styles.

Then people started sending me demo CDs and I found some other music I liked and released more albums (both blues and jazz). So now I have 40 releases of blues and Jazz and some Latin and World music. Starting this label was like reconnecting with my teen years. But this time I was able to live in the Jazz world of New York, go into the studio with musicians and discuss the takes and participating in producing music. I also would go to Chicago to collaborate with blues musicians and set up recording sessions.

The label’s motto is: Blues, Jazz and Whatever. So, whatever I like I’ll release and see how it goes.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues & jazz people and what does the blues mean to you?

As I said earlier, I learned a lot about the common humanity of us all. I can’t imagine living without blues (and Jazz…real jazz is blues based too) in my head, and listening to recorded or live music. And for me it was a soundtrack to my political activities.

"If young musicians listen to to real blues and find something that inspires them that they can build on to create their own sound…that’s obviously a good thing." (Photo: Richard & Jimmy Heath)

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Well, once you are hooked, you are hooked for life. Blues penetrates to the soul. There is a following that is devoted but I don’t know if it is standing still, declining or even growing. There will always be blues fans, and new generations will discover the blues…how numerous the blues fans to come will be is another issue.

Which memory from Little Arthur Duncan makes you smile?

I went to a CD release gig for our album in Chicago at a club called Smoke Daddys. He was a total performer: just shouting it out. He led us in sort of a conga line marching around the club while he sang and riffed on the harmonica.

Are there any memories from Yank Rachell which you’d like to share with us?

Yank was a great story teller and he really got onto it as I taped interviews with him. He told a lot of “tall tales” that were obviously exaggerated, but always had some kernel of truth in them. We spent several hours together, drinking coffee and laughing over some story he’d tell. He did his best to remember things he’d done 50, 60 years earlier. He had always held jobs and supported his family and it took a lot out of him…his life of hard labor and he was in declining health during the time I spent with him. Charlie Musslewhite put it well when he told me, “he had a great spirit, always had a kind word and loved to play music and laugh.”

"I would have liked to have been sitting in the back of the bar with a bottle of moonshine in Brownsville, TN in, say 1929 and hear Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon play for a Saturday night dance." (Photo: Richard & Yank Rachell)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

So many of the musicians I heard on recordings and in person are gone. There’s hardly any living links between now and the likes of Yank, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Jr. Lockwood, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Terry….et al. Maybe Ry Cooder is one example, because he’s such a scholar, a real practical musicologist who taps into these traditions and reflects them in his work.

What I miss also reflect my fears…this music, fortunately it’s recorded, documented, is gone in terms of who is performing now. That sound, the delta sound of someone like Honeyboy Edwards, and the Memphis area string and jug band tradition that Yank came from is gone. To some degree John Sebastian has carried this sound along…but not many have had. I am encouraged that the Chicago style pioneered by Sonny Boy Williamson (another collaborator of Yank from their younger days) and Muddy Waters has its continuators. I’m working now on an album with Martin Lang—a Chicago blues harmonica player—that we will release in the fall of 2014. Anyway old music dies out and new music comes along…

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and World music?

If young musicians listen to to real blues and find something that inspires them that they can build on to create their own sound…that’s obviously a good thing. An artist I’ve recorded, Pyeng Threadgill (daughter of free jazz reed man Henry Threadgill) is one of them. She’s still young and innovating. Just two weeks ago she had a gig at the Zinc Bar in Manhattan that was a 10th anniversary for her first CD release (on my label, it’s titled Sweet Home: the music of Robert Johnson). I introduced her to RJs music and she did her own arrangements, adding reggae beats, Latin, and other sounds. It’s a great album. At this gig she did two sets, one of them was playing the way she did on the album and the next set was her on vocals, an Oud player and a percussionists on a big gourd drum (a calabash). It was a new sound that blew me away. Middle Eastern rhythms and melodic lines. This is real innovation and widens the reach of Robert Johnson, interpreting in a new way.

Technically I can’t describe it (not being a musician) but there is a common thread of feeling that blues sound that can be extended into other musical forms. And also, a lot of other musical forms around the world have that blues sound too….how about  Fado, or in Greek music…I forget the name of the style, but I have a CD of a female Greek singer of traditional songs that has that penetrating, bluesy sound.

"The label’s motto is: Blues, Jazz and Whatever. So, whatever I like I’ll release and see how it goes." (Photo: Richard & Hugo Blanco, about 1976, Houston)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

A way for musicians to make money and for indie labels to do the same. I’ve lost my shirt in this business. I don’t make any money. Fortunately I have a day job and a supportive wife.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would have liked to have been sitting in the back of the bar with a bottle of moonshine in Brownsville, TN in, say 1929 and hear Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon play for a Saturday night dance.

Random Chance Records - official website

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